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A novel in verse … and the writing thereof

Revision, revision, revision

April 15th, 2011

I’ve been busy trying to revive my flagging gardening blog, which means that this one has suffered. Apparently I cannot chew gum and walk at the same time. Or even on alternate days. Why is this? Never mind.

Not blogging doesn’t mean I’ve not been writing; vast changes have swept over Landscapes. Well, not vast, but significant. Enough so that I’ve not tried to keep the posted version up to date. Here’s a summary:

Chapter Two has a new poem, “Playing Like Idiots,” which is posted. I wanted something lighter and livelier than the rest of that chapter, which tends towards the discursive. (more…)

the Landscape of Language Poetry

March 20th, 2011

Picking up where I left off—sort of—in my musings about poetics, which started with Language Poetry and the Unbroken Baroque: what has language poetry to do with what I’m up to in Landscapes? Not much, it seems; nothing, I thought, when the question first occurred to me. After all, I don’t mess around with syntax or spelling, and I’m not pushing a political agenda. In fact, my language is so straightforward, so prose-like, that it isn’t poetry at all, according to some. Not only do I eschew the sorts of language pointers used by language poets, but I don’t even employ the kinds of imagery and compression used by conventional ones. And, again, I’m not supporting a political position.

But. (more…)

Unrationed writing

March 18th, 2011

Sick all this week, I’ve gotten little done till today, when I practically poured ink onto the page. Though I did some of that drafting here in cyberspace, some of the ink was literal, as I’m again using the little books my mother bought me years ago, along with a handsome leather sleeve to cover them. The books are a treasure trove of drafts and plans and lists and musings about Landscapes.

Earlier this week I spent some time on the larger organization of the book, revisiting what I call Linda’s personal time line, in which I try to plot events, her age, and major national or international news as well. I really do have to figure out how many kids she has and when. Having tried yesterday to add a new date (in other words a new row) and having seen everything go suddenly out of synch, I bit the bullet and put the whole thing into a table, so I can add as many rows as I want wherever I want them. Ha. (more…)

late-breaking news: two phone calls and two more names

March 13th, 2011

On the phone today I told my mother my western names story, which I wrote up yesterday. (See Western Names Live On.)  In brief, it’s this: that after hearing the names for a high school basketball team from the middle of Montana ( Clint and Clinton, Kyler, Tiegan, Bridger, Trent, Wyatt, Logan, Brody, and then the German exchange student, Jonas), I was pretty sure I hadn’t gone overboard with names I’d chosen for my male characters (Cory, Rollin, Travis, and Brant).

But she thought maybe I had gone too far; she’d never met people with those names when she was growing up. (All these characters are nearer her age than mine.)  She hadn’t been in the west, I said, a point she was reluctant to concede. She’d never known anyone like that when she traveled through  Oklahoma, she said.

“Oklahoma? Oklahoma’s not the west!”

“It isn’t? We sure thought it was. What about when you were in San Diego?” (more…)

Basketball culture and Philip Aaberg

March 13th, 2011

I didn’t think of yesterday’s basketball games as research.

Yes, games, plural; after Trent’s team won their morning game, we returned to see if they could beat the team that had defeated them in their first game of the playoffs. They did, taking third at State. Go Diamondbacks!

I went for fun, which I found in plenty, along with more of a workout for my adrenalin glands than I’d planned on.

Then I encountered the slew of very western names on the Diamondback team that I wrote about yesterday: Brody, Bridger, Clint, Clinton, Jonah, Kyler, Logan, Tiegan, Trent, Wyatt. I have also started thinking about basketball, Montana, and my book. For one thing, I’ve realized that basketball is almost certainly part of the life of Cory and his brothers. One or more of them would have had to play. (more…)

Western names live on

March 12th, 2011

I had named Cory’s three brothers Rollin, Travis, and Brant, though with some misgivings; was I overdoing the western touch? Laying it on too thickly?

Then we went to a class C basketball game this morning, and I realized I could go a lot farther before those accusations would stick. (more…)

Backwards in time Part 2: What I did

March 11th, 2011

So here I am in the midst of another multi-part post, this one about readers’ criticism and whether to follow it and what I’ve actually tried so far. Yesterday I went round and round about how hard I find this question of whether to clarify the timeline in chapter one, or to say, Look, the pieces are all there—put them together.

Today I was determined to do some writing on Landscapes itself, and I’m happy to say that I did. Most of it was small-scale editing which I’ve recorded as comments on several poems in Chapter One, but doing it meant I had to face the issues on an immediate and practical level.

But let me back up a bit. (more…)

Backwards in time

March 10th, 2011

Back to Landscapes, my recent additions, and their advisability or lack thereof.

Last Sunday (Rewriting it Wrong) I promised to post more on these topics “tomorrow.” But that afternoon I went to a concert and met Joan Guenther and got all fired up about language poetry and Saussure and critical theory and all. Which was great fun, and distracted me for a few days from the possibility that I’ve been headed at a great clip in several wrong directions recently. But it’s time now to try to corral myself and get back on track.

As I said in that long-ago post, the two problems I’ve been hearing about most often were a lack of sensuous detail, and problems following the timeflow in the first chapter. (more…)

Can one drop the reins? Part 3: On the other hand

March 10th, 2011

Terry Tempest Williams was in town yesterday, so at 4:30 I closed the computer, put on my boots and raced downtown to grab a ticket. Good thing too; the hall was packed, and the talk terrific. A more committed voice for sanity in an increasingly crazy world I’ve rarely heard. The occasion was Montana State University’s annual Friends of Stegner Lecture, a talk Williams is eminently qualified to deliver: not only is she a remarkable activist, author, and environmentalist, but she knew Wallace Stegner well enough to call him “Wally.” I am going to have to read more of her work.


When I did finally post yesterday, I published a chunk of what was getting to be a very long piece about whether it’s possible to relinquish authorial control. The question had occurred to me as I read and wrote about language poetry, which seeks to do exactly that, largely in an effort to subvert, undermine, or at least divorce itself from the colonial and imperialistic projects so frequently supported by English. (And, I realize, Williams’ work is not unrelated, as she, too, seeks to challenge and oppose the worst of western capitalism—its rapacious greed, its need to control, to subjugate, to kill. Hmm.)

But I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible to relinquish control, to drop the literary reins, or whether they’re tied to our wrists, or perhaps even extensions of them, not reins at all but hands and fingers. Who would chop off her hands to say, I will not try to run the world? and having chopped off one, how could she chop off the other? It’s not even possible. (more…)

Can one drop the reins? Part 2: one line’s craft

March 10th, 2011

Yesterday’s post was so long that I’ve chopped it in half. I’m still working on Joan Guenther’s “So some guy says,” and the question of whether it is possible, as language poets like Guenther aim to do, to relinquish authorial control over one’s written work.

In Wednesday’s post I pointed at the line, “What is poetry doing in the universe? What is the universe doing? Does poetry do? Is the universe in?” This is one of the lines that resonates inside my head, setting up an immediate, sympathetic vibration. I get it. It makes me laugh, almost every time I read it. I can see the language leading the poem by the nose, with Joan tumbling after. The first question addresses an issue of some import to poets everywhere, in an extremely simple form that nevertheless has at least two very different meanings.

The first of these meanings, How did poetry come to exist? itself divides, eliding effortlessly into the closely related, Why does poetry exist?  (And lest you be thinking in terms too small, Guenther adds “in the universe” to stretch the context, and your brain, a bit.) This question uses “do” in a familiar but not literal way: “What are you pajamas doing in the refrigerator?” means both “How did they get there?” and “Why are they there?” (more…)

Can one drop the reins? Part 1: Joan Guenther’s “So some guy says”

March 9th, 2011

Is it possible, I wonder, to give up authorial control?

Looking (again) at Guenther’s “So Some Guy Says.”(Poor Guenther. Poor poem,)

Before starting, let me say, loudly, that I’m not claiming to “understand” this poem. Parts of it speak to me immediately, as if from inside my own head. Other parts have begun to resonate since my first reading of it. Still others remain foreign, like a joke I don’t get: I hear the words, I hear others’ laughter, but I can’t join in. I don’t get it.

But then, I’m not going to try to give a complete “reading” of the poem. Instead, I’m going to ask whether, given the clear crafting of it, it can possibly be as free of convention, as much of a challenge to control, as I understand language poetry tries to be. (more…)

Ah so, Saussure

March 9th, 2011

I am in some language haze, a storm of words making meaning (maybe) with me as merely medium, bridge or conduit. Of course, words are the medium, confusing what was unclear already. But must we stick to the middle? I have always verged towards the extreme—how I loved Wallace Stevens’ insistence that if we were offered “Clear water in a brilliant bowl,/ Pink and white carnations,” everything tranquil, steady, an even keel, the middle of the road, still “one desires/ So much more than that.” (“The Poems of Our Climate.”) Oh does one not.

This one does. I do. That poem ends with some of my favorite lines anywhere, from anything:

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

The blizzard of words and ideas in my mind rises to an ecstatic howl. (more…)

Language Poetry and the unbroken Baroque

March 8th, 2011

Warning: We interrupt this sequence on recent revisions to bring you the following post on things only peripherally relevant to Landscapes itself, but central to poetry.

It was an amazing concert. I’m in Toronto to see my mother, but we both enjoy saying that I came all the way from Montana for the concert, just to watch people do a double take. Certainly the concert set the timing. And I’d say that flying halfway around the continent for Tafelmusik’s Galileo Project makes perfect sense. (More on the concert at the end.)*

To cap it off, I discovered I was sitting next to a woman who appeared to be editing a long document, so of course I asked if it was hers or someone else’s. It had to do with a workshop, she said, and at length let slip that she was a poet. In the end we traded e-mails and names; she’s Joan Guenther, a language poet, she told me, and indeed I found her work (and picture no less) online at Influency Salon, where she’s featured as writer, editor, and critic.

I haven’t read or thought about language poetry for a long time, but I do remember that it stresses language to bring attention to it as stuff, the way that laying oil paint on in huge gobs makes you see the paint itself, not just the picture being painted. I remember big and jagged fonts, miss-spellings, all kinds of things that made the medium, the words, their size and shape and colors, prominent.

In retrospect, I see this as part of a whole wave of reactions against author-centered modernist poetics, which were increasingly perceived as conservative, “precious,” and promoting a false sense of security about the bonds that tie a poem—or any language—both (either?) to its origin (the writer) and to that of which it “speaks.” Believing such bonds to be false, LP seeks to sever them, or to demonstrate their falsity. (more…)

Rewriting it wrong

March 6th, 2011

Well, damn, damn, damn. I’ve been writing up a storm, and I suspect it’s a shitstorm. In recent months several new readers have helped me gain momentum on this project—helped enormously. It’s amazing what knowing I have to hand some stuff out on Friday afternoon does to my production during the week.

Though my initial reaction to much of the advice has been to balk and set my teeth, I’ve tried to overcome that resistance, and have been revising along lines they suggested.

But I just showed the revised first chapter to someone I know well (my oldest friend in fact) and trust absolutely in life and literature both, and she adamantly dislikes the additions. (I think she managed to avoid saying “Yech,” but it was a close call.)

(more…)

Change of Venue

March 4th, 2011

Ever since I started this book, my protagonist Linda has lived in Sacramento. That era is over.

One of the first poems I drafted is Why I Married the First Man Who Asked Me, which is still the first poem in the first chapter, though now preceded by the Prologue. The poem is all about earthquakes—sort of—the implication being that Linda lives where quakes happen pretty frequently. I don’t want to change that poem; it works.

But a couple of weeks ago, when I was doing all that research about bungalows in Sacramento, my husband pointed out that Sacramento doesn’t get a lot of earthquakes. I’d always figured that even if it didn’t get as many as San Francisco or Berkeley (we lived in Berkeley for years) it must get some.  It was a while before I could get myself to look into this, and when I did, I just put my head in my hands and groaned. Steve is right, and here’s the USGS map to prove it:

(more…)